Why is the PR-Blogger Relationship So Fraught?

Why on Earth do public relations people keep blowing it with bloggers? It happened again last week, causing a massive social media backlash.

To recap: A vice president at BrandLink Communications (let’s shorten that to BLC) presumably received a forwarded email from an employee. The forwarded email was originally sent by The Bloggess, declining a BLC pitch. The decline was sharply worded, and used a few examples of language a lot of us would consider inappropriate in business transactions, but clearly intended as snark. The BLC VP tapped out some vulgar language to describe what he thought of the blogger. He intended to share the email with his employee, but hit Reply All instead, delivering the note to the blogger, too. When the blogger pointed out what he’d done, the VP aggravated the situation by typing a follow-up email that lacked any sense of accountability and piled on further demeaning statements about the blogger.

All this turned into a juicy blog post (includes language NSFW) for The Bloggess and ultimately a social media traffic jam for BLC.

Words about the Whys

This brought to mind some obvious questions:

  • Why does anyone still mistake the Reply All button for Reply in this day and age?
  • Why do PR people get so hot under the collar about declined pitches from bloggers?
  • Why can’t people apologize – quickly, simply, genuinely and without excuses – when they’ve done something wrong or hurt somebody?

The social media ‘verse jumped on all three of those bandwagons last week. This week, these are the questions still pinging my brain:

  • Why is a vice president – or any manager, for that matter – expressing himself to an employee using foul language?
  • Why is this person in PR?

Strangely enough, this incident sent me back to my college textbook, Effective Public Relations. The very first thing authors Scott M. Cutlip and Allen H. Center have to say about the practice is this:

“Public relations is the planned effort to influence opinion through good character and responsible performance, based upon mutually satisfactory two-way communication.”

Reading that solidified everything that troubled me about the BLC-Bloggess episode (and all-too-similar incidents).

What shocked me is that this derived from the thoughts and actions of someone who’s risen to the role of vice president in the PR industry. Yes, it’s worth asking how someone gets to be a manager, much less a VP, if they think using vulgar language is appropriate in the workplace – when they feel so comfortable with it that they commit it to email, where it will live forever.

Many companies scan employee messaging for inappropriate language for the express reason that it creates an unpleasant and sometimes downright hostile work environment. Even if you’re tempted to use swear words at work, IT scanning is reason enough to hold back.

More to the point, if you’re managing people, you’re a role model. And, if you manage staff in the PR field, you’ve got a double role-modeling going on. Employees not only look to you to help them understand the kinds of behavior appropriate in the office, including civility and professionalism, but they’re picking up clues about how to interact with the client and with the media on the client’s behalf. I’m not clear where emailing a junior staffer a derogatory note about a blogger – even one meant as commiseration over not getting a hit – fits in. That email influences opinion among the people who report to you, but it doesn’t demonstrate good character or responsible performance. And the blogger who received it by accident clearly didn’t find the two-way communication mutually satisfactory.

A Passion for PR

PR is a profession for people with passion. We love what we do because we’re inspired by what our clients have achieved, and we want to tell the whole world (or various niche audiences) about it.

Sure, we get excited over media hits, but that shouldn’t necessarily translate to plummeting into despair when pitches fail. Or cursing reporters and bloggers. Is this really where you want your staff focused?

Let the excitement of your efforts carry you forward. Encourage your team to turn their attention to the next media outlet or blogger on the list. Remind them that every “no” gets them that much closer to the person who says “yes.” Better yet, have them talk with the reporter or blogger about why the pitch didn’t land, ask what would work in the future, and how she or he likes to receive information (you’d be surprised, a personal approach can even – sometimes – turn a “no” into a “yes,” but if it doesn’t, you still wind up with a better sense of how to be a hit with this person next time around).

Why Do Bloggers Enjoy the Special Ire of PR Pros?

In his second email – the one that was intentional – the BLC VP was quite clear that a blog was barely a blip on his impressions radar, so why the elevated blood pressure?

Have we drunk the Kool-Aid that suggests blogs in some magical way influence consumers more effectively and thus equal the Holy Grail of “engagement” in ways that mass media can’t?

Are we so desperate to prove we “get” social media? And, if we do understand it, why are we relating so rottenly with bloggers. Any PR person with a dash of social experience on the side could have predicted the social media fallout that resulted from refusing to apologize and suggesting that a blog was irrelevant.

Here’s the thing: bloggers can be influencers just as much as reporters. But, a pitch that gets picked up by a blog is an impression, just like any old media impression. If you want true engagement for your client, you need to help them establish their own relationships, whether B2B or B2C, and set up their own social experiences with the audiences they want to reach.

Why Work in PR?

The heart of the professional-behavior issue for me is this: As a PR person, we’re supposed to be hard-wired to understand that everything we say and send must be on behalf of the client and reflects on the client. It doesn’t matter whether our clients have B2B or B2C audiences, or if they’re internal business leaders and we’re helping them message to employees, board members or other stakeholders.

If we’re not acting on behalf of our clients, we’re in the wrong job. But, let’s say we forget every once in a while. We’re human, after all. Then, why aren’t we acting on behalf of the company? We’ve been in a lengthy period of recession; losing a client over something like this has repercussions for the agency and all the people who work there and would like to continue bringing home a paycheck.

When we lose a sense of joy – about this or any other profession – other things slip, too, in our practice. When that happens, perhaps it’s time for some reflection on what we’re doing and whether we still find passion in it.

The best PR practitioners lead with their hearts, their values and a clear understanding of and passion for the purpose of this work. They are happy to come to work every day and thrilled when they make things happen for their clients. It’s how they remain professional, ethical and effective in their communications amid even the most intense crises and why clients and media people (traditional and new) respect them.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Public relations defines itself by what it does.”
~ Cutlip and Center, Effective Public Relations

When Melissa and Tara Met UCLA x425

I’ve been taking an excellent UCLA Extension class, “Best Practices in Social Media for the Communications Professional,” taught by Excel PR’s Erik Deutsch. Deutsch arranged the course format to pack in some 11 guest speakers in six weeks, each of whom is applying social media to their day (and evening) jobs as we speak.

The double act of Melissa Robinson, SVP of Consumer Marketing & Digital Communications for Weber Shandwick, and Tara Settembre, by day PR manager for the Walt Disney Company Consumer Products Division and by night the mastermind behind the popular When Tara Met Blog, inspired the following blog post full of tips from these two dynamic social media/PR pros on working with bloggers.

“All day, I’m email-pitching bloggers,” notes Settembre. “At night, I come home and there are 200 emails pitching me.” Her advice, and Robinson’s, comes right from the front lines. Read the full post here.

Leading by Example: Why PR Bloggers Should Act Like Reporters

An appeal for higher standards – fact-checking, source verification and the like – among blog writers appeared in this piece on Ragan.com this morning.

Author Jeremy Pepper notes that just because many bloggers are writing “opinion pieces” doesn’t exempt them from using some basic tools of the reporting trade. He exhorts PR writers, in his call for journalistic standards on blogs, to lead the way:

“We’re that bridge for media and bloggers to our clients and companies, and we can engage and help out there,” Pepper writes, adding parenthetically: “That is why Facebook, Twitter and other forms of electronic media and communications have become so valuable.”

I would add that this is when social media becomes valuable: when it applies standards and is open and honest with its consumers about its content, where it came from, and how it’s disseminated.

This article contains links to some thought-provoking sidebars that you may find interesting (or off-topic) and, since I’m calling this blog No Bad Language, I feel obligated to advise it also includes one bit of coarse language that makes it potentially unsuitable for younger readers.

The Value of Quality: The Great Paywall Debate

Arianna Huffington examined the paywall debate and established her own beachhead – and, incidentally, Huffington Post’s, as well – on the side that favors free content, in a recent editorial, “On Change, Disruptive Innovation, and the Problem with Paywalls.”

“We definitely won’t be erecting any paywalls at HuffPost,” she announced, perhaps prematurely, since the new media site only just moved in with its new business partner, AOL, and the fruit of what’s kindly been called a merger (despite AOL buying Huffington Post outright) has yet to appear on the vine. It remains to be seen if AOL will want to erect a farmstand to sell HuffPost’s produce.

And the debate over paid content? At the Changing Media Summit (which inspired Huffington’s post), The Times of London’s Paul Hayes, commenting on the paper’s decision to use a paywall, said, “We believe in the quality of our journalism to such an extent that it’s worth paying for.”

Huffington pounces on this – “The implication being, of course, that those who don’t put their content behind a paywall don’t value their content.” – while confusing the difference between “quality” and “value.” For example, an audience may be willing to pay (value) for content created by journalists trained to a particular level of skill and with an understanding of the tenets of their profession (quality).

I agree with Huffington when she says that the idea that blogging “is only for shallow, uninformed bloggers, and that online legacy journalism is the only domain for ‘deep analysis’ feels about as old as the Tower of London.”

I make no claims that blogs don’t or can’t uphold the same journalistic professionalism as pay-based media. The medium is certainly capable and so are many of its practitioners. But, here again, she’s confusing the argument. “Deep analysis” is a type of content; its home is on the editorial pages. “Journalism” is something else again, and opinion, subjectivity and a less-than-thorough review of the facts are strived against in the sections of media channels dealing with news. Blogs, like Huffington Post, are often, though not always, aggregators of news and events, and their contribution, in the form of original content, tends to be opinion, and they are not always clear about the difference between aggregation and origination.

There’s a lot of hand-clapping in Huffington’s editorial about “blurring the line” – between Old Guard journalism and blog-writing, between being a reporter and being a reader – content blending into one big pot of information soup stirred by a collaborative of cooks.

She quotes Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion: “We are ceasing to be consumers of mass media; we are becoming participants in social media – a far more fluid environment in which we simultaneously act as producers, consumers, curators, and commentators, sharing our thoughts and perceptions with people we know and with people we don’t.”

This immersive nature of the Internet “makes the idea of paywalls and walled gardens all the more unproductive,” Huffington concludes. “They go against the fundamental nature of the medium – and fundamental natures have a way of winning out.”

Hard to disagree there – this is an altogether different medium than TV, and the masses will vote on this with their Facebook “Likes.” However, chalking up the thinking around paywalls and new media platforms to Ludditism is in its own way an easy bit of prejudice.

It’s pretty simple to say “blogging is great” when you’re pointing to a few good news blogs, rather than the entire panoply of content offered on the platform. The majority of blogs out there in the Ethernet are conveying information that is highly opinionated, highly personal and intended for smaller groups of people than the widely read news and opinion providers Huffington is referencing.

We neither expect these blogs to be updated regularly nor do we write in when they make mistakes with spelling or grammar or fail to attribute quotes or cite sources for information. This is not how I, or many others, would feel about a commercial blog, with or without a paywall.

To argue that we’re entitled to free information on the Internet flies in the face not of the value of that information, but of the quality. Sure, it’s been helpful to be able to reference The New York Times on the Internet whenever I’ve wanted; now, depending on the article, I may have to pay for the privilege of peering behind their paywall. In the past, one either had to buy a copy of the paper or go to the library to look up an article or reference for free. If I want the kind of quality journalism that comes from objective, researched, well-edited reportage that doesn’t blur the lines between fact and opinion, I understand when I plunk down my $1.29 at the newsstand, or hand over my credit card digits online, that I’m supporting not an Old Guard institution that signifies my Luddite thinking, but the salaries of people whose years of training and experience have ripened into expertise as reporters and editors. And that is something worth paying for.

If one is calling for the best of all possible worlds, then, in my humble understanding of the notion, unpaid and paid options should be available to audiences who can choose based on their needs and interests, on the quality of the content, and the value they assign to it.

Mission Statement

I believe there’s no bad language, only unfortunate choices.

I have a passion for language that cuts through the cacophony we’ve created with thousands of channels and multiplying media options. My goal is writing that creates meaningful connections, greater understanding, a stronger sense of purpose about the work at hand.

With this blog, I’m hoping to explore writing that takes wing, messaging that hits home – the good stuff, and why and how it works. I hope you’ll share your examples and expertise as well because while writing is mainly a solitary task, it’s the sharing of writing that gives it meaning and develops our ability to do it well.

Even after several decades as a professional communicator, I still write first drafts that give me nightmares (and would make you cringe if they ever saw the light of day – maybe in a future post, I’ll work up the nerve to share a first draft and show how it evolved into something that someone felt was worthy of publishing), and I can’t write headlines to save my life (see “Mission Statement” above). But, I am driven by the belief that effective communication helps everyone at work as well as in life, and it’s why I spend so much time thinking about it and practicing at it.

I don’t know about you, but I still experience that inspiring frisson whenever I learn something new – about grammar, style, launching a blog, how to read between the hash tags on Twitter – and I hope always to get the same sense of giddiness when I discover great writing, whether it’s a headline in The Economist, a novel new or old, a website, the contents of a fortune cookie, or even in a press release.

What writing has inspired you? Did you post it to a blog or to the bulletin board over your desk? How did it change you or inspire you to take action – or not, depending on what you were reading?

Writing that inspired me this week:

“It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”
~ Tom Stoppard, “Arcadia”